International students

The latest publicly available data tells us that in 2014 Oxford had 5637 postgraduate research students. Whilst UK (Home) students account for 42% (2389) of the cohort, 20% (1137) are from the European Union and 37% (2105) are from elsewhere overseas. Since more than half of Oxford’s postgraduates are international it makes sense to look at what information is available about their experiences at Oxford.

The most recent figures from the University show that overall submission rates, based on the number of students submitting in less than 49 months, have risen for international students. Although, the proportion of overseas and EU students submitting in this time frame is lower than that of UK (Home) students, the gap is narrowing. The percentages of overseas and EU students who started in 2010/11 and submitted within 49 months are 59% and 61% respectively. Equivalent figures for the 2003/4 cohort are 50% and 54% whilst the corresponding figures for UK (Home) students are 63% (2010/11) and 66% (2003/4).

In general, international (EU/Overseas) postgraduate research students surveyed in 2014 (Student Barometer) were positive about many areas of their research experience at Oxford including the quality of teaching/ supervision; this satisfaction also extended to their overall university experience.

Oxford international PGR students' satisfaction with aspects of learning (% of "satisfied" or "very satisfied" students in various categories)
Satisfied or very satisfied with... Overseas   EU   Home
...subject expertise of supervisors 95 94 97
...level of research activity 94 92 95
...teaching ability of supervisors 92 91 92
...helpful feedback on my progress from my supervisor 90 85 87
...guidance from supervisor on topic selection and refinement 89 83 85
...confidence about managing a research project 88 85 88
...prompt feedback on my work 88 84 88
...understanding the required standard for my thesis 85 81 84
...learning that will get me a good job 75 72 81
...advice and guidance on long-term job opportunties from academic staff 69 67 70
...opportunities to teach 61 63 71
...OVERALL SATISFACTION with learning experience so far 87 88  91
...OVERALL SATISFACTION with all aspects of university experience 90 91 93


There were certain aspects with which international students were less satisfied, in particular “learning that would get me a good job”, “advice and guidance on long-term job opportunities from academic staff”, and “opportunities to teach”. Not only were these aspects rated less favourably than other aspects, some were also rated much less favourably by international students than by their Home counterparts.

While international students are satisfied with many aspects of learning and overall experience at Oxford, adjustments still need to be made. Here an international doctoral student talks about his experience at Oxford:

We’ve got ...some culture or some background from home, so we need to adjust our culture to England, to English culture, but at the same time, I think the... people here should adapt their culture to understand us more too, because... in the culture [I come from] we respect ... the teacher a lot, so we’d never argue... Even if we don’t agree sometimes!... The lecturers, they saw me... passively learning, but actually, I can do everything by myself ... you need to get some guidelines a little bit, and then just let us do it, yeah. But now, I think I am in between, so I can... I can be independent now, but I still respect the teacher as... I couldn’t get rid of the old culture I have, and I think it’s good to respect older because they’re teachers, because they give you some knowledge. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

And another international student refers to his efforts to remain connected to his network of relationships at home:

In a sense, I’m in a different... I’m in the UK, but this is just for my education, but I still belong... So it’s that whole question again of negotiating and navigating, because they are two different places and two different sorts of cultures... There’s a network of relatives who, you know, call for holidays, the holiday periods and everything – those are key, and obviously my family. I’m on Google Chat with my brother almost every day. I phone my parents... The need to be grounded, for me, is the most important thing. (Doctoral student, Social Sciences)

Yet another student describes how compromises are sometimes necessary, but can result in specific difficulties, because of the international nature of his research and home:

I do sometimes wish I weren’t in isolation. I’m out here [in USA] for two reasons: one, because I needed to talk to a lot of people in the US working in classified US Government installations, buildings, that I could not telephone into – I had to go visit them in person; but the other reason is simply it’s a lot cheaper to live out here than it is to live in North Oxford. I would much rather be living in North Oxford and seeing my supervisor every day and working in an office with the other…the other grad students and my cohort. I just couldn’t afford to do that, do it that way.
Yes, yes, it is...em…it is both positive and negative. It’s positive if you can use the isolation to concentrate on a problem and really work on it, but it’s…it can be a negative because of feelings of loneliness, feelings of isolation, and opportunity to go procrastinate on something that, if your supervisor were watching you ...that wouldn’t be allowed to happen. (Doctoral student, STEM)

The UK's Quality Assurance Agency have produced, jointly with the National Union of Students, The UK doctorate: a guide for current and prospective doctoral candidates. This document explains doctoral qualifications available in the UK in terms of the nature of the degree, routes into doctoral study, funding and finance, and the experience of doing a UK doctorate. Of course, it will be useful for UK-based students as well as international ones.

See Ideas to help international students, which offers a number of suggestions for dealing with common difficulties.

Supervisors of international students may find it useful to arrange opportunities for these students to meet regularly with their other students, as a means of supporting one another emotionally, intellectually and practically. These meetings might take the form of lab group meetings, methodology meetings or research skills meetings. Where a supervisor does not have enough students to develop a reasonable group size, it would be worth joining forces with another supervisor for these meetings or seeking support from the Director of Graduate Studies.

International students may be helped to anticipate new ways in which they will be expected to work in the UK with these Being an international PhD researcher resources on the Apprise website.

See the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity. As well as the English language version of the Statement, the website includes translations into a number of other languages.

The UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA) provides a wide range of helpful advice and information for international students, including this section on culture shock.

The University’s Student Information and Advisory Service can provide individual advice and support to international students on visa and immigration issues and other related problems.

Information on what plagiarism means within the Oxford context is available on the University’s website, and includes a Frequently Asked Questions section. An online course on Avoiding Plagiarism is available on WebLearn.

Oxford University Student Union can also provide advice and support to International Students through their Student Advisory Service. The Vice President (Graduates) is the point of contact for all international students ( OUSU also oversees the International Students Campaign which holds social events as well as raising awareness of issues affecting international students.

International students may find that finances become a problem, particularly if they are taking longer to complete than they expected. Departments and colleges may be able to offer advice and hardship loans or grants, and there is information on Other sources of funding available on the University web site.

Other topics in this website which may help international students to face the challenges of adaptation are:

  • being ethical - see Integrity and ethical practice in the conduct of research
  • fitting in to the department - see Intellectual climate
  • supervisory and other face-to-face meetings - see Student-supervisor relationships
  • concepts of time - see Clarifying expectations
  • publishing - see Publishing during the doctorate

International students might like to consider reading:

Fox, Kate (2004) Watching the English: the hidden rules of English behaviour. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Amazon says: "In WATCHING THE ENGLISH anthropologist Kate Fox takes a revealing look at the quirks, habits and foibles of the English people. She puts the English national character under her anthropological microscope, and finds a strange and fascinating culture, governed by complex sets of unspoken rules and byzantine codes of behaviour." 

International students are generally highly motivated, many choosing the UK for their doctorate in order to have a degree ‘from the West’. Many international students, especially from low to medium income countries, have a Masters degree from the UK or their home country, but need a PhD from the West for promotion.

International students expect and are expected to adapt to academic and cultural practices and environments which are often unfamiliar to them. Consequently, they can face a number of intellectual challenges whilst studying in their ‘host’ university. Whether they perceive the changes they make in response to these challenges as temporary and strategic in order to finish their doctorate, or to be used to transform practices in their ‘home’ academia, the challenges have to be negotiated. For many their motivation arises from a commitment to using their doctorate to contribute to the advancement of their home country. Nonetheless, the challenges can leave students feeling uncomfortable, disempowered, or struggling for an identity.

For some, a key area where these challenges arise is in being critical. The Western approach to education is one which requires an individual to be critical – to question texts and ideas, to challenge other people, to construct arguments, to have an opinion. For international students from a non-Western background critique may be an unfamiliar concept, something for which they are not well-equipped and, consequently, something which can be difficult for them to adjust to, for a variety of reasons:

  • Critique may contradict the values emphasised in their previous education experience. To disobey or contradict what a teacher or supervisor recommends could be considered impolite and to subject the work of well-known and established academics to critical scrutiny could be considered disrespectful.
  • Critique may violate codes of language and social conduct. In some cultures ‘saving face’ and maintaining political and racial harmony is extremely important and hence any criticism of ideas has to be offered in a roundabout, indirect way rather than the more direct, up front approach advocated in Western education.
  • Critique may be a politically or academically dangerous thing to undertake. Some international students come from a home culture or situation where taking a critical stance, even when abroad, is risky and might impact upon their academic reputation or have political repercussions.
  • Critique may not take place in their first language. International students may readily be able to critique in their first language but doing so in English may be the problem. When writing or discussing in English they may lack sufficient ability to express themselves or to structure their words with an order that is appropriate to the English language and, therefore, conveys the meaning they want to get across and enables listeners and readers to understand what they are saying.
  • Supervisors and tutors may have well-defined views of what constitutes good writing e.g. critical analysis, evaluation, synthesis, but are unable to explain exactly what is meant by these terms.

Although the English language ability of international students for whom English is not their first language will be required to be of a certain standard, there will often be certain nuances of English which cause linguistic problems. One such area is the use of metaphors, that is the comparison of one object with another in order to describe it. The difficulty is that culturally-based knowledge is needed to interpret successfully both the context and meaning or connotation of a phrase. For instance, if students lack the requisite underpinning knowledge, they may not understand a metaphor or may misunderstand it to the extent that they make an interpretation which makes sense to them but is wholly different from that intended by the speaker. Such difficulties with metaphors can seriously affect a student's perception of the speaker's stance towards the topic under discussion and even send the student off in an erroneous direction.

Further, there are considerable practical challenges to be faced. Financial support is often dependent on employers or home governments, or competitive scholarships from the British Council. Otherwise, such students may be using gifts and loans from their extended families. Most are experiencing a substantially lower standard of living than they are used to during their doctorate - even those who continue on their previous salaries (funded by their employers) are faced with the higher cost of living in the UK. In addition, many are facing separation from their families in addition to other forms of homesickness.

It appears that international students from different regions experience discrimination in varying degrees; for instance, students from the Middle East and Africa report greater discrimination than those from other regions. Additionally, even if efforts are made to avoid discrimination within the students’ institutional experiences, it needs to be borne in mind that students often will be experiencing discrimination in their daily lives beyond the academy.

International students can be surprised to discover the relatively lowly status they hold as a research student. According to Leonard (2007, p3), "They expect to be treated differently from other students as a mark of their superior, doctoral student status... there is seldom recognition of/ knowledge about/ interest in their home country, nor does anyone except their supervisor know what (sometimes prestigious) jobs they hold at home.”

For peer support, international candidates tend to choose other international students, especially where English is their second language. However, it appears from the research that to successfully negotiate their new personal and academic environments they need three sorts of 'peers': co-national, multi-national and host-national.

  • Co-national peers, that is those from their own country, are particularly important for emotional support. Being able to talk with someone who has a shared culture and language is critical when one is going through a stressful emotional period.
  • Multi-national peers can provide important social opportunities, as there is a shared 'sojourner' experience which can often help with coming to terms with one's new environment. Doctoral students often report that it is easier to speak and understand English with other international students than with domestic students.
  • Host-national peers are important in assisting international students to understand how to negotiate their new academic environment and, in particular, ways of relating with supervisors and other staff involved in working with them on their research. It is through relationships with domestic peers that international students can learn the 'tricks of the academic trade.'

The above text was based on the following research:

Furnham, A., & Alibhai, N. (1985). The friendship networks of foreign students: A replication and extension of the functional model. International Journal of Psychology, 20, 709-722.

Hanassab, S. (2006). Diversity, international students, and perceived discrimination: Implications for educators and counselors. Journal of Studies in International Education, 10(2), 157-172.

Kiley, M. (2000). "Providing timely and appropriate support for international postgraduate students". In G. Wisker (Ed.), Good practice working with international students (pp89-108). Birmingham: SEDA.

Leonard, D. (2007) Early Career Academics Doctoral Experiences paper presented at the annual conference of the Society for Research in Higher Education, Brighton.

Student Barometer, International and Domestic, Autumn 2014.

University of Oxford, Student Statistics.

Further resources:

Cadman, K. 2000. Voices in the Air’: evaluations of the learning experience of international postgraduates and their supervisors. Teaching in Higher Education, 5 (4), pp. 476-491.

Flowerdew, J. 2001. Attitudes of journal editors to non-native speaker contributions. TESOL Quarterly, 35 (1), pp. 121-150.

Furnham, A. (1997) "The experience of being an overseas student", in McNamara, D. and Harris, R. (Eds) Overseas students in higher education: Issues in teaching and learning. London: Routledge.

Kaplan, R. B. 1966. Cultural thought patterns in inter-cultural education. Language Learning, XVI (1&2), pp. 1-20.

Garton, S. & Copland, F. 2009. ‘I want to make friends with different people in different country’: creating social opportunities for international students. Presentation at SRHE Conference 2009, Wednesday 9th December, Celtic Manor Resort, Newport, Wales.

Lea, M.R. & Street, B.V. 1998. Student writing in Higher Education: an academic literacies approach. Studies in Higher Education, 23 (2), pp.157-170.

Maunder, R., Di Napoli, R., Borg, M., Fry, H., Walsh, E. and Jiang, J. 2009. Acculturation into UK academic practice: the experiences of international doctoral students and academic staff at two research-intensive universities. Presentation at SRHE Conference 2009, Wednesday 9th December, Celtic Manor Resort, Newport, Wales.

Morita, N. 2004. Negotiating participation and identity in second language academic communities. TESOL Quarterly, 38 (4), pp. 573-603.

Okorocha, E. 2007. Supervising international research students. London, Society for Research into Higher Education.

Robinson-Pant, A. (2009) Changing academies: exploring international PhD students' perspectives on 'host' and 'home' universities. Higher Education Research and Development, 28(4), 417-429.

Seagram, B., Gould, J. and Pyke, W. (1998) An investigation of gender and other variables on time to completion of doctoral degrees. Research in Higher Education, 39(3), 319-335.

Singh, M. and Chen, X. (2012) "Ingorance and pedagogies of intellectual quality", in A. Lee and S. Danby (Eds) Reshaping doctoral education. Abingdon: Routledge, 187-203